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A Primer on Giving Critical Feedback

Have you ever told an employee, or even a peer, that she is going against expectations, and that she should do something differently? To a lot of us, this can feel very uncomfortable. We do not know how the other person will react. Maybe she will become angry, or upset, or won’t want to be friends with us any more (my three year old son’s favourite these days). Last minute, we ask ourselves what gives us the right to tell people off, and somehow there is no good opportunity to have the conversation, and, in the end, we postpone giving the critical feedback indefinitely. Does this sound familiar? It certainly happened to me.

However, failing to give feedback can have disastrous consequences for your team in the long run, and is also not good for the person who should receive the feedback. Moreover, there are techniques you can use to lead the conversation in an effective, but respectful way. The more people in an organization are ok with giving and receiving feedback, the better its people will be able to develop. This is why, below, I am trying to give an introduction to good feedback conversations.

Structure

Let’s start with a high-level structure. In my opinion, a typical feedback conversation has the following structure:

  1. Describe a concrete example situation
  2. Describe negative consequences of the displayed behaviour, and make sure they are understood
  3. Ask the feedback receiver for suggestions to improve or avoid the situation in the future
  4. Make an agreement how to move on

Let us have a more detailed look at the individual steps.

1. Describe a concrete example situation

It is very important to have a concrete example situation at hand, and make sure the feedback receiver remembers it. Otherwise, she might not see what you are getting at, and you are basically playing “he said, she said”:

Sharon: “Hey Susie, I wanted to talk to you about something. I have a feeling that you have been coming across as a little disrespectful lately.”

Susie: “Disrespectful?”

Sharon: “Yes, that is my impression. You seem to upset people a lot.”

Susie: “Hm… I usually don’t mean any disrespect to anybody, on the contrary. I like my colleagues, so I would be surprised if anybody thinks I’m disrespectful, to be honest.”

That’s a dead end. Sharon cannot make Susie see what she means, because the discussion revolves around general impressions and feelings, which can be very subjective. Sharon even uses a generalization (“You seem to upset people a lot.”), which is catastrophic to a critical feedback discussion, because the feedback receiver will feel personally attacked and not be open to arguments any more. Never say things like “You always forget to put proper comments in your merge requests” or “You never pay attention to the styleguide”. Seriously, even if it’s true. If you have concrete examples, you don’t have to use generalizations.

Since Susie does not see or does not want to see any fault on her side, Sharon has to put a mirror in front of her by referring to a concrete situation. Let’s try again:

Sharon: “Hey Susie, do you remember the project meeting last Thursday, and the things that you said about the existing codebase?”

Susie: “Um…not quite sure.”

Sharon: “Well, you emphasized a couple of times that the existing codebase was a mess, and that it is a pain to work with.”

Susie: “Ah, yes. True.”

At first, Susie is not sure what Sharon is talking about. So Sharon helps her remember, and it works. Now that both have a common frame of reference, the actual feedback can begin.

This example also illustrates another aspect of good feedback: timeliness. The situation that Sharon refers to happened “last Thursday”, which might be five, might be eight days ago. As we can see, it is almost too long ago for Susie to remember it properly. If the feedback receiver does not remember the situation, the feedback will be less effective, because she has to rely on the – potentially subjective – memory of the feedback giver. This will make the feedback highly dependent on the relationship between the two. Therefore, good feedback comes as soon after the situation in question as possible. Same day is perfect, next day is good, everything above might already suffer from the effects just described.

2. Describe consequences

Once a common understanding of the situation is reached, the feedback giver describes the consequences of the receiver’s actions. Let’s have a look at what this could look like:

Sharon: “You know, Jeff was really upset about your remarks on the legacy codebase. You were kind of arrogant, and quite a few people in the room felt the same way.”

Susie: “Oh really? Well, then I find it surprising that nobody mentioned this to me except you, and after the meeting, some of the other devs agreed to my points about the legacy code.”

This didn’t go too well, but, again, it illustrates a couple of points. First, try to avoid speaking on behalf of others. Sharon claims that Jeff was upset. If I were Susie, I would wonder a) if that is really true, and b) why Jeff cannot speak for himself. This way, Sharon’s criticism will not be accepted willingly, but rather cause resistance instead.

Sharon goes even further when she claims that other people in the room thought that Susie was arrogant. This is a bold claim to make, because Sharon cannot know this unless she really talked to all these persons, and if that is the case, it kind of looks like she was actively searching for an opportunity to criticize Susie.

Secondly, try not to criticize the person, but the behaviour or result. Sharon says “you were kind of arrogant”. This is very broad, and can be perceived as an attack on Susie’s character. Again, this claim will not meet very receptive ears and hearts, but will likely cause resistance. Sharon should be more specific: “ What you said came across as arrogant.”

From these observations, we can derive two ground rules of describing negative effects of certain behaviours:

  1. Stay with the effects the behaviour had on you , not on others. This way, you stay on the safe side, and nobody can reasonably doubt you or prove you wrong:
    • Bad: “You insulted everyone.”
    • Good: “What you said upset me.”
    • Bad: “People felt that you were being aggressive.”
    • Good: “I felt attacked by what you said.”
    • Bad: “Joseph thought you were being arrogant.”
    • Good: “What you said sounded kind of arrogant to me.”
  2. Do not criticize the person, but criticize the behaviour. This increases the chance the feedback receiver will keep listening and think about what you are saying:
    • Bad: “You keep insulting people.”
    • Good: “If you frown and roll your eyes while I am talking, I feel insulted.”
    • Bad: “You are not thorough enough.”
    • Good: “If you check in code you have not at least run on your machine, it will cause somebody else to lose time.”

I used “insulting” a lot in these examples. This also applies to your feedback: It must not be insulting to the feedback receiver. If you criticize the person (“You were arrogant”), or even use a generalization (“You are always so arrogant”), then that is insulting and will meet resistance. You will not reach your goal of making the feedback receiver aware of problematic behaviour.

There are situations, however, when you yourself are actually not the one affected by the problematic behaviour, but you still want to bring it up. In these cases, you can use a technique called triangular questions, meaning you introduce a third perspective into the conversation:

Sharon: “Jeff was also in the room, and he wrote most of the legacy code you were talking about. How do you think he felt when you talked about his work like that?”

Colloquially speaking, triangular questions are about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Sharon could also describe the effect that Susie’s behaviour would have on her if she was the one responsible for the legacy software:

Sharon: “I cannot speak for Jeff, but if I had written the legacy code, and you talked that condescendingly about my work, I would be upset.”

Putting all of this together, let’s give Sharon another try at making Susie aware of the consequences of her behaviour.

Sharon: “I think you know that Jeff, who was also in the room, is responsible for much of the code you were talking about. How do you think he felt about what you said about his work?”

Susie: “Hm, I don’t know. I think he sees the same shortcomings that I see.”

Sharon: “That’s true, Jeff is also critical of his own work. And it’s perfectly fine to name clear deficiencies like that the software is not modular enough, and not extensible, and that the test coverage is low. But if you keep mentioning how the whole thing is a mess, and that it is such a pain to work with – well, if you talked about my work that way, I would feel pissed off. Can you understand that?”

Susie: “Hm…yes, in a way.”

Sharon: “I noticed an uncomfortable look on Jeff’s face, and even on some of the others’ faces. So I don’t think I am the only one who sees it that way. From what I can see, you are not winning any friends that way.”

Susie: “Ok, I think I got it.”

Feedback is a gift, but the other person has to accept it for it to be effective. At least on the outside, that’s what Susie just did, so we can move on to the next phase.

3. Collect suggestions

Understanding that certain behaviour is not helpful is one thing. Improving on it is another, so in the third step, we ask the feedback receiver for suggestions to improve or avoid the problematic situation in the future. It is very important that the suggestions come from them, not from you. Advising them what to do might be well intended, but it is also belittling. Your message is: “I don’t trust you to solve this on your own.” They will not feel autonomous, but passive and powerless. However, if they suggest a solution themselves, they have an active part, and you can hold them accountable if they don’t live up to their own suggestion.

A communication trainer once told me this simple rule that I remembered ever since: “It’s their problem to solve. Not yours. Don’t try to solve their problem for them.” After all, at this point, you have done enough talking. It is now time for the feedback receiver to do some talking. So Sharon simply asks:

Sharon: “What are your suggestions?”

Another subtle mistake that many people make out of good intentions is to phrase this question from a “we” perspective:

Sharon: “What can we do to avoid this in the future?” (bad)

This perspective is probably supposed to signal support, and to avoid the impression of blaming. However, if you keep the “don’t try to solve their problem for them” mantra in mind, this is counterproductive. By saying “we”, you partly take the responsibility of finding a solution off their shoulders, which is something we – pardon, you – should avoid. So let’s see how this plays out:

Sharon: “What do you suggest to avoid this in the future?”

Susie: “Well, I guess I should be more mindful of how I criticize other people’s work.”

Sharon: (after a short silence) “Can you be a bit more specific?”

Susie: “I should stick to facts, like too big classes, or using deprecated interfaces, instead of giving my opinion about how it is a mess and terrible to work with.”

Sharon: “That sounds good.”

This is a phase in the conversation where you can use some carefully dosed uneasiness to drive your point home. If your employee’s first suggestion is not good enough, ask for more suggestions, or ask her to be more specific. If they cannot come up with something right away, just be silent and wait. That is the moment when she notices you are serious about this, and it is important to you, and you will not give her an easy way out of it. Let’s look at a different example:

Peter: “Do you have suggestions how you can avoid your colleagues’ impression that you are not serious about your tasks?”

Marc: “Well, I guess I should not joke around all the time.”

Peter: “Mh-hmm. I think that’s not quite enough, though. What else?”

Marc: “Hmm… Give status updates more proactively?”

Peter: “That sounds good. What else?”

Marc: “Hmm… I don’t know. Show clearly that I am listening when somebody explains something to me?”

Peter: “Yes, I think these three combined would be a good start.”

We have almost reached our goal. The feedback receiver has understood our point, and gave constructive suggestions as to how to resolve the situation. We can move on to the final part of the chat.

4. Make an agreement how to move on

The final step in the feedback discussion is basically just an answer to the question “what’s next?”. You should make clear that this is not a one-off thing, but that you are interested in real and sustainable change:

Sharon: “Thanks for listening and for considering my points, Susie. I suggest we talk again in two weeks to briefly discuss how things are going, and if you notice any changes in your interactions with colleagues.”

Susie: “All right.”

You want to follow up on the conversation you just had not because it is so much fun checking on your people and telling them off, but because you care about real change. If Susie improves her communication habits, and Sharon never loses a word about it, Susie will wonder why she put in the effort. If Sharon takes the time for at least one follow-up discussion, it shows that she cares about Susie’s development.

A manager’s paradox

Your employees might not always like you for being that persistent in these situations, but this is what Dick Costolo calls the ultimate paradox of being a manager (7 min video) :

“You need to care deeply, deeply about your people while not worrying or really even caring about what they think about you. Managing by trying to be liked is the path to ruin.”

If you ever feel that you are avoiding a feedback discussion you really should have with your employee, remind yourself that giving feedback is an act of kindness. By giving honest feedback, you are doing a service to the receiver of the feedback and, not to forget, to your team. If you do not do it, probably nobody else will. This means that you are the only one standing between your team and a dangerous trend. It is your job to stop this trend. Yes, it might be uncomfortable, and yes, you will not win every popularity contest there is. But if you fail to give necessary critical feedback, dysfunction will spread across your team, your department, your company.

And, hey, it gets better with practice. You will learn how to keep hindering emotions in the background, and how to reduce the uneasiness to a necessary minimum. However, try not to become a feedback bottleneck, butteach others the art of giving good feedback. If giving feedback becomes a common thing in your organization, those negative trends will be stopped sooner, and you will have more time for the pleasant things.

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